The U.N. calls restraint chairs torture. Illinois jails use them every day.

The U.N. calls restraint chairs torture. Illinois jails use them every day.

by GRACE HAUCK
ILLINOIS ANSWERS PROJECT

Warning: The following article includes mentions of self-harm and profanity.
This is the first in a series of stories.

McHENRY, Ill. – Vernon L. Brooks Jr. was distraught.

Forced into a chair in a jail cell with a black mesh hood over his head, he panicked as he felt officers tighten straps like tourniquets around his wrists and restrain his ankles and chest.

When he screamed he couldn’t breathe, officers removed the hood but kept him restrained for three and a half hours, unable to move. He felt like his circulation was cut off, and he lost feeling in his hands – a numbness he said persisted months afterward.

Brooks had been on a date with his wife at a local haunt that night when he was arrested for what he says was ultimately a paperwork mistake. Believing he was being unjustly detained, he yelled and cursed at officers who put him in a restraint chair at the county jail.

While the officers say Brooks resisted, fought and threatened them, Brooks disagrees with the characterization and says the use of a restraint chair was unwarranted, traumatizing and inhumane.

It’s not an uncommon experience.

A nine-month investigation by the Illinois Answers Project found county jails in the state restrain people in chairs on average more than 1,000 times a year, often in ways that violate their own policies and last longer than recommended by leading standards and manufacturer guidelines, causing physical injuries and psychological trauma to people commonly grappling with mental illness and addiction.

While Brooks’ case is not the most extreme incident identified by Illinois Answers, it’s a prime example of the now-normalized practice happening daily in jails, which hold people who have been arrested on suspicion of a crime but have not yet been convicted.

A year-and-a-half later, the former Navy sailor is still seeing a neurologist for nerve damage in his wrists and hands through Veterans Affairs. He takes prescription medication for it twice daily. He sleeps with a brace emblazoned with the American flag on his right wrist.

A longtime artist, Brooks has only recently started drawing again. He frequently drops things. His hands often tingle, triggering flashbacks of that night.

And he’s seeking justice.

“I didn’t deserve to be treated like this,” said Brooks, 57, who became emotional as he described the experience and had to step out of the room a few times.

Experts would agree.

Human rights groups have long decried the use of restraint chairs in American jails and prisons, where they say the device is prone to misuse and abuse that is akin to torture. The United Nations Committee Against Torture has urged U.S. officials to abolish the chairs, and Amnesty International has said inadequate training and supervision of their use has caused pain, injury and even death. The same brand of chair used in many Illinois jails was also used at Guantánamo Bay.

Spurred by Brooks’ account, the Illinois Answers Project undertook the first known accounting of the use of restraint chairs in adult county jails across the state. Illinois Answers acquired thousands of county and state records, reviewed jail policies, spoke with sheriffs and jail administrators, consulted corrections and mental health experts, and interviewed dozens of people restrained in chairs.

The investigation revealed that, from 2019 to 2023:

Statewide, staff restrained someone in a chair nearly every day, totaling more than 5,500 incidents, which is likely an undercount. The people restrained ranged in age from 18 to at least 70, with the exception of at least four minors, ages 12, 13, 16 and 17. They were booked on charges ranging from disorderly conduct and traffic offenses to murder. While that’s a small percentage of all people booked into jail, the figure surprised several experts, who said it may indicate that staff use the chairs in non-emergency situations.
State standards, last updated a decade ago, don’t specify a limit on how long someone may be restrained. County policies typically limit duration to two hours at a time. But, in many cases, staff restrained people for far longer. Some were restrained repeatedly for days on end – up to a week – with the exception of periodic breaks. In many cases, staff failed to regularly log checks of people restrained, and some people did not immediately receive medical attention – if at all.
Some people were restrained numerous times, which experts say may indicate the chair is used as punishment or in lieu of treatment. For example, one man was put in a chair more than 40 times in a little over a year. In many cases, staff used the device to deal with people who were in withdrawal or trying to harm themselves, often in ways that detainees described as punishment and torture.
In hundreds of cases, staff used a stun gun, Taser or pepper spray in the process of restraining detainees. In hundreds more, staff placed some form of spit hood or mask over their head. In at least one county, people were shocked while restrained with a stun cuff affixed to their leg, sending 80,000 volts of electricity through their body in what legal advocates say is blatant civil rights violation.
What’s more, many jails failed to report using a chair to the state unit charged with monitoring them, as required by administrative code. For more than 1,700 incidents, neither the state nor county could provide a copy of such a report. After receiving inquiries from Illinois Answers, multiple counties said they began reporting incidents to the state.
And even when reports are made, it’s unclear how actively the state unit reviews the forms submitted by jails. The six-person unit does not appear to enter or track data from the forms, which also contain information on overdoses, fires, fights and more – masking the scope of an array of issues inside Illinois jails.

The people restrained in chairs included veterans, young men and women struggling with addiction, people who banged on their cell because they wanted a shower or phone call. Many were naked. Some urinated or defecated on themselves. Some saw their hands and feet swell, go cold and turn purple. Some strained against the straps and bled.

Many are haunted by nightmares years later.

County sheriffs and jail administrators, meanwhile, claim staff use the chairs as a last resort in emergency situations when detainees are a danger to themselves, others or property – and never as a disciplinary tool. Some are facing a staffing crisis and lack of resources to properly care for detainees with mental health and substance abuse issues, and they say the chair is the safest alternative to pacify an agitated person in the absence of clinical care. But multiple others, citing concerns about injuries and liability, have stopped using the devices altogether.

By and large, the practice has continued under local leadership of county jails with vague policies, limited oversight, and, in some cases, paltry documentation. And at one jail where two advocacy agencies investigated complaints about the treatment of people with disabilities, Illinois Answers found the jail has failed to live up to a number of promised reforms.

Strapped to a chair like an ‘animal’

Brooks’ ordeal began in November 2020, when he slammed a door in an 120-year-old apartment building, causing a piece of plaster to fall off the wall. He was charged with one count of criminal damage to property less than $300 and sentenced to community service.

Brooks completed his 15 hours at a nearby church, records show. But the pastor never submitted his paperwork. Records indicate Brooks also missed a court appearance and failed to pay a fine. In November 2022, unbeknownst to him, a warrant was issued for his arrest.

That’s why, on a Friday night one month later, Brooks was confused when he was arrested. Brooks, a Black man, believed he had been targeted because of his race.

Vernon L. Brooks Jr. stands at the spot where he was arrested in McHenry, Illinois, on April 25, 2024. (Credit: Sebastián Hidalgo, for The Illinois Answers Project).

He and his wife, Mary, were leaving a video gambling cafe near their home when McHenry Police responded to a call of an “unwanted subject” and discovered Brooks had a warrant. (The cafe owner did not respond to questions about why someone called the police.)

“Why am I being arrested?” Brooks asked when he arrived at McHenry County Jail, according to one report. Brooks, who had been drinking, was not suspected of using drugs, the report said. Officers showed Brooks the warrant, and he temporarily calmed down and got out of the car.

But once in the intake area, Brooks “became more agitated and verbally abusive.” Officers’ reports say Brooks resisted, threatened them, called them racists, refused to complete the intake process, and tried to bite and spit.

In an interview with Illinois Answers, Brooks acknowledged he was upset but said he didn’t threaten or try to spit at or bite officers. Handcuffed and surrounded by five officers, Brooks said he wasn’t a threat. The sheriff’s office denied Brooks and reporters access to video of the incident, citing security concerns.

The entrance to McHenry County Jail in Woodstock, Illinois, on April 25, 2024. (Credit: Sebastián Hidalgo, for The Illinois Answers Project).

According to an officer’s report, officers had completed a pat search and were “trying to move inmate Brooks into a better position” to “safely remove his handstraints and exit the cell” when the sergeant decided to put Brooks in the chair. Officers placed a spit hood on Brooks’ head and restrained him “without much difficulty.” Brooks said they then removed the hood.

Brooks, who had previously undergone surgeries on his knee and right shoulder and wrist, said he was in pain.

“They left my ass strapped there like a f— animal,” Brooks said.

An ‘excruciatingly painful’ experience

Forced into a single position, a person restrained in a chair faces potentially serious health risks, especially if they have underlying conditions. A prolonged lack of movement can slow blood flow, cause blockages and even be fatal. The use of a chair can also cause anger, resentment, humiliation and psychological distress.

Restraint chairs have been linked to more than 50 deaths in the United States since the late 1990s, according to investigations by The Marshall Project and USA TODAY. The deaths have been tied to blood clots, suffocation and overdoses that went untreated while restrained. People have also died after jail staff Tased or pepper sprayed them while restrained or failed to provide food, water and medication.

In 2015, a man at Fayette County Jail developed blood clots in his lungs after eight continuous hours in a chair, according to a report from the Human Rights Authority of the Illinois Guardianship and Advocacy Commission, a semi-independent state agency that advocates for people with disabilities. The man, diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, was restrained repeatedly, for up to 11 hours in one sitting. Hospital staff later discovered scabs on his buttocks from ulcers.

“You need to use common sense,” said Dr. Marc Stern, an expert in correctional health care who helped write the National Commission on Correctional Health Care Standards. “How long can you let somebody sit on one spot until they get sore? And if you’re talking about a restraint chair that’s got a hard bottom, it doesn’t take more than a few hours for there to start to be damage.”

Straps placed incorrectly or too tightly can restrict breathing and cut off circulation. An investigation published last year by the nonprofit Washington Lawyers’ Committee found people at the federal prison in Thomson, Illinois, were restrained with the straps “intentionally applied to cut into people’s skin and to force their elbows and wrists into uncomfortable positions that cause shaking, numbness and even temporary paralysis.”

A restraint chair made by E.R.C. Inc. can be seen. The company, now known as Safety Restraint Chair Inc., previously faced scrutiny for the use of its chairs at Guantánamo Bay. (Credit: Sebastián Hidalgo, for The Illinois Answers Project).

Dustin Kolczak, 32, recalled his hands swelling up to “double the size” after being restrained for an “excruciatingly painful” four hours at Tazewell County Jail. He filed a federal civil rights suit in 2019 alleging officers stripped off his clothes, and then handcuffed, restrained and Tased him. The jail settled for $2,500 and sent Kolczak a check made out for “bodily injury.” The county denied a public records request for video of the event, citing security concerns.

Just last year, a federal judge in Georgia sentenced a former sheriff to 18 months in federal prison for violating the civil rights of six pre-trial detainees at a county jail by ordering the detainees to be strapped into chairs for hours without justification, causing some of their wrists to bleed and scar.

In recent years, many U.S. jurisdictions have restricted or discontinued the use of restraint chairs, according to a 2020 report from the nonprofit Disability Rights California. Utah and Florida have reportedly banned or partially banned their use in correctional facilities, and agencies in Vermont, Oklahoma, Texas, Montana and Iowa restrict their use, the report states.

“These are really dangerous, potentially dangerous devices that are highly regulated in health care settings, which have a lot of backup safety provisions should things go wrong,” said Pamila Lew, a senior attorney with Disability Rights California. “And it’s startling that, in a jail context, there really seem to be relatively few safeguards around their use.”

Hours, days strapped to a chair

Safety Restraint Chair Inc., which makes the chairs used by many Illinois jails, advises that detainees should not be left in a chair for more than two hours. “This time limit was established to allow for the detainee to calm down, and if needed it allows for the correctional staff to seek medical or psychological help for the detainee,” the company website states.

The time may only be extended under medical supervision and must not exceed eight hours, even with regular stretching, the company states. It does not recommend anyone be left in the chair for more than 10 hours total.

In Illinois, most county jail policies require staff to check on restrained detainees at 15- or 30-minute intervals and give them breaks every two hours to stretch, use the bathroom or drink water. Oftentimes, staff restrain people for far longer than two hours.

Over the five-year period and 5,500 known incidents analyzed by Illinois Answers, people were restrained for two hours or less at least 1,800 times. In at least 1,300 cases, people were ultimately released more than two hours after they were initially restrained.

In some of those cases, staff released someone for a brief break, restrained them again, and restarted the clock for another two hours. In others, staff attempted to release someone but changed course, deciding the detainee was still a danger to themselves or others. In other cases, staff deemed it was not safe to try to release someone or a detainee refused to leave a chair.

Specifically, the investigation found:

at least 400 incidents exceeding four hours,
at least 100 incidents exceeding eight hours,
at least 70 incidents exceeding 10 hours,
nearly 50 incidents exceeding 12 hours,
nearly 20 incidents exceeding 20 hours.

For context, the Justice Department previously found a Pennsylvania prison unconstitutionally used prolonged isolation on prisoners with serious mental illness, including “cruel and unnecessary” incidents where people were held in restraint chairs for close to 20 hours.

“Restraining people may have a place in every system for a few minutes to an hour, but there’s no excuse for keeping people in restraints for hours and hours and hours, let alone days,” said Alan Mills, executive director of the Uptown People’s Law Center, a nonprofit legal clinic in Chicago.

Many of those detainees held for the longest periods had diagnosed mental illnesses or had expressed suicidal ideation, according to an Illinois Answers review of records. Most of the longest incidents happened in Madison County, outside St. Louis, and Peoria County in Central Illinois, where people were restrained for the better part of days.

In Madison County in 2019, a man who had threatened self-harm was restrained for the better part of 37 hours. During that time, he was released from the chair periodically to use the restroom, walk, eat and drink water, according to the jail’s log. But he also refused some offers to be released for a break. Eventually, the man asked to be released “due to his feet being swollen,” records show. The county said they had no record of any medical assessment during that time.

“You’re only supposed to be in there for as long as it takes to control the situation,” said Michele Deitch, who helped draft the American Bar Association’s Standards on the Treatment of Prisoners, adding, “And if the person has just gotten up and stretched their legs or whatever, and they’re not acting out anymore, then there’s no reason to put them back in the chair.”

In Randolph County in 2022, a man who was beating on a door was restrained for more than 25 hours, with periodic breaks to drink water and use the bathroom, records show. Asked by Illinois Answers, the county could not provide a record showing he ever received medical attention and said they don’t typically have a nurse staffed on the weekend.

In one extreme case in Franklin County, Travis Braden returned from the hospital after swallowing a piece of metal and was restrained for his “own safety” at least 29 times over the course of four days in 2022, for a cumulative period of at least 50 hours, according to county reports and handwritten logs. He was given periodic breaks for water, food and to use the bathroom, records show.

Braden filed a federal civil rights lawsuit that is ongoing. He is in custody at a state inpatient treatment center for people with severe mental illness. In a handwritten letter to Illinois Answers, he described the restraint as torture.

“I have horror nightmares about it of which I’m still being treated for today,” Braden wrote. He added: “I want these chairs removed from the jails or for more controlled environments on safety and policy followed.”

What’s more, in more than 1,000 incidents, it’s unclear how long someone was restrained because staff never documented when the detainee was released, as required by most county policies. Asked about the missing information, one county official said the release time “was inadvertently left off of the restraint chair log.” Another noted it “should have been in the report.”

Illinois jail standards say little about restraint chairs

The Illinois County Jail Standards, which establish minimum rules for how to run a jail and treat detainees, say little about the use of restraint chairs and largely defer to a jail’s own policy, which vary widely.

The standards require county jails to use restraints only as a last resort, to document the use of restraints, to provide detainees with a medical exam and appropriate treatment “immediately after security control has been gained,” and to review each case at least once every 24 hours to determine the necessity for restraints.

Yet some Illinois county jails are not following standards. In many cases, staff used the chair as an immediate response and did not promptly provide detainees with a medical exam or treatment.

And in one county – Cumberland – staff never recorded when someone was restrained in a chair in the five-year period analyzed by Illinois Answers. In October, the county approved a restraint chair policy that requires staff to create an incident report and developed a form to log the amount of time someone spends in a chair.

Compared to the Illinois standards, a number of bodies offer clearer guidance on the use of restraint chairs, including the accrediting organizations American Correctional Association and National Commission on Correctional Health Care, which sets a 12-hour cap on restraint. But just six Illinois jails are accredited by the ACA, and it was unclear how many are accredited by the NCCHC.

Lew, of Disability Rights California, said the Illinois standards “seem very cursory and general and do not provide any timelines or guardrails against unreasonable use.” A bipartisan legislative oversight committee last reviewed an Illinois Department of Corrections amendment to the standards in 2014.

California’s standards, by contrast, set a higher bar. Lew said the state revised its rules after Andrew Holland, 36, was restrained in a chair at a jail for 46 hours straight and died from a blood clot 45 minutes after he was released. Lew served on the committee for the revisions in 2019.

Now, California requires jails to conduct “continuous direct visual observation” at least twice every 30 minutes, review the use of restraint at least every hour, obtain a medical opinion within one hour, complete a medical assessment within four hours, and take the person to a medical facility after eight hours.

The standards also require staff to document the duration of restraint and record the incident on video “unless exigent circumstances prevent staff from doing so.” In no case, the standards say, should restraints be used “as a substitute for treatment.”

Some California counties even limit the use of a restraint chair to two hours within a 24-hour period, according to Disability Rights California.

Meanwhile, the Illinois standards require jails to report the use of a restraint chair as an “extraordinary and unusual occurrence” to the Jail and Detention Standards Unit within IDOC, which annually audits all 92 county jails and oversees their compliance with state standards.

But for more than 1,700 known uses of a restraint chair detailed in jail reports, neither the county nor the state unit could provide records showing an “extraordinary and unusual occurrences” report was made to the state, Illinois Answers found. That includes 15 incidents of prolonged restraint in which someone was ultimately released more than 10 hours after they were initially restrained.

“It doesn’t surprise me at all that counties are not reporting this stuff because really there’s no consequence for not doing so,” said Mills, of Uptown People’s Law Center.

Per Illinois statute, if a facility does not meet standards, IDOC is supposed to notify the county board and sheriff and, after six months, can petition for a court order requiring a facility to comply. It’s unclear if that ever happened.

Some jails said they were unaware of the reporting requirement and never filled out the forms. One sergeant said the topic was never covered during training. Another said he believed the reports were unnecessary for the “mere use of the restraint chair.” Many more counties have a policy that requires reporting of incidents to the state but failed to report specific cases.

“It just makes me think, if those reports are missing, what else is missing?” said Daniel Sheline, president of the Illinois Correctional Association, the local chapter of the national trade association and accrediting body that promotes implementing agency standards. “Are they even documenting some of these things at their end, let alone reporting up to the state agency that governs them?”

Sheriffs and jail administrators who submitted reports said they don’t know what happens to the records. The IDOC said the state unit “makes every effort to ensure reports are reviewed individually and handled dependent on its content” and offers suggestions for improvement.

The revelation also raises questions about the quality of the unit’s annual inspections. An Illinois Answers review of inspection reports from last year found that, for all jails, inspectors checked a box indicating staff were properly reporting “extraordinary and unusual occurrences,” even when many were not.

“The fact that the sole oversight authority over the jails is the prison system is itself concerning,” said Amanda Antholt, a managing attorney at Equip for Equality, a federally-mandated nonprofit watchdog that monitors for abuse and neglect of people with disabilities.

The IDOC repeatedly declined to comment on the investigation’s findings. Top department officials also ignored a reporter’s direct outreach.

Why county jails use restraint chairs

Restraint chairs are used widely in Illinois. Nearly all jails possess at least one, and most used one sometime in the five-year period analyzed by Illinois Answers.

Jails use the chairs for many reasons. Staff often restrain people as they’re coming into jail, especially when detainees refuse to comply with booking procedures, are intoxicated, belligerent, fighting staff or threatening people.

In other cases, staff restrain people who are damaging property, such as breaking a sprinkler, ripping wiring out from a phone, throwing objects, or flooding a cell by clogging a toilet. In some cases, staff use chairs to transport people within the jail or to court.

Staff also restrained people who became combative because they believed they were being denied services – such as access to a phone call, preacher, mattress or shower – or were required to remove clothing, shoes or jewelry, especially wedding rings.

Some jail staff use restraint chairs after exhausting all other options, such as placing someone in a safety smock, observation cell, padded handcuffs or padded cell. Others quickly jump to using a chair.

“It’s a very difficult job, for one, that we do. We don’t need to make it more difficult on ourselves by using the restraint chair as a device it’s not intended for,” Sheline said. “We should be limiting how often they’re used, how long they’re used.”

Nine Illinois county jails said they don’t possess any form of restraint chair, and several stopped using the chairs in recent years, citing concerns about injuries, a lack of policy, inadequate training, and chairs falling apart over time.

“There is too much potential for abuse with them,” wrote Stacey Wood, executive assistant with the Christian County Sheriff’s Department, which stopped using its chair three years ago.

 

Other jails say they need restraint chairs because they don’t have any better options when people are in crisis – especially when detainees are grappling with mental health and substance abuse issues. Sheriffs and jail administrators say they have a duty to care for detainees and need to prevent someone from harming themselves at all costs.

In the forms submitted by jails to the state after using a chair, staff in numerous counties indicated the need for improved screening procedures, increased counseling hours, padded cells, faster response time with emergency medication, and full-time mental health and medical professionals on site.

“Open more mental health hospitals and take these individuals there instead of jail to get the help that they truly deserve,” Tazewell County Deputy Jail Superintendent Mike Harper wrote on one form.

Sheline, who has worked in corrections for over two decades, said he’s seen a rise in mental health crises and self-harm inside jails in the last 10 to 15 years. In that time, Illinois has closed many mental health facilities, and it takes longer to get people who have been deemed unfit for trial a bed at an Illinois Department of Human Services facility, he said.

In 2022, multiple sheriffs sued Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration over the delayed transfer of inmates into IDHS custody, saying detainees with mental illness were languishing in jail. The lawsuit became moot in early 2023, when Pritzker signed a law extending the period a detainee deemed unfit for trial can sit in jail from 20 to 60 days. If IDHS cannot find a bed in that time, the law allows IDHS to request 30-day extensions.

According to IDHS, the average wait time was 74 days as of early March.

It was unclear how many people restrained in chairs over the five-year period analyzed by Illinois Answers were waiting for a bed at an IDHS facility at the time. Records suggest that’s the case for at least some incidents.

In one such incident in Effingham County last year, five officers donned riot helmets to restrain a man who was hitting his head in an isolation cell. In the incident report, one officer wrote that he planned to forward the report to IDHS “in an effort to expedite” the man’s transport to a state facility.

“It’s just a snowball effect where you have more and more people in the jail that are working double shifts every week, and then you have more and more inmates that are having mental health problems,” Sheline said.

Just last year, the state unit overseeing county jails cited most of the 92 facilities for non-compliance with state standards, including for inadequacies in detainee supervision (62), staffing or personnel (19), and housing (6).

Sometimes the availability of cells influences the decision to place someone in a chair. In multiple incidents in Peoria County, staff restrained people who needed to be on suicide watch “due to not having proper housing available,” records show. One person was released 11 hours later, another 12 hours later.

Peoria County Sheriff Chris Watkins said his jail was built decades ago and was not designed to house detainees with serious mental illness, so “other measures had to be utilized to protect this specific population.”

Dr. Terry Kupers, an expert on psychiatric health care in custodial settings, however, questioned this approach.

“Someone who’s suicidal should not be in a restraint chair. Period,” Kupers said. “What they probably need, if it’s that urgent, they probably need to be transferred to a psychiatric facility.”

Ashley Holst, 24, was restrained in a chair twice in 2019, once for six hours at DeKalb County Jail and then again at St. Clair County Jail for five hours. Both times, Holst said she was having a mental health crisis, and the chair only made her “more agitated.”

Ashley Holst stands outside her home on April 23, 2024. (Credit: Sebastián Hidalgo, for The Illinois Answers Project).

Holst has had a long and complicated struggle with addiction and mental illness and previously tried to harm herself. She’s been hospitalized several times and charged with battery against health care professionals several times.

At St. Clair County Jail, Holst was screaming and banging on her cell window when an officer decided to restrain her in a chair because two other secluded rooms were already occupied, records show. Staff put a spit hood over her head as they restrained her because she was “screaming and spit was flying from her mouth,” records show. Neither the state nor county had an “extraordinary and unusual occurrences” report on file for the incident.

Holst served over a year in prison, mostly in a mental health unit, at Logan Correctional Center – a deteriorating facility set to be demolished – for aggravated battery and was released in August. Now, she is on medication, working at McDonald’s, and plans to go to school for alcohol and drug counseling. She said she’d like to work in a prison someday to support people in similar situations.

Searching for justice

Back at McHenry County Jail, a nurse immediately assessed Brooks for injuries and evaluated the restraints for proper circulation, records show. According to the supervisor’s report, Brooks was “too agitated to answer the nurse’s questions, and she cleared him to remain in the (chair).”

Two hours after restraining Brooks, staff tried to allow Brooks to stretch his limbs one at a time, but Brooks was “too agitated,” the report said. A nurse cleared Brooks to remain in the chair. An hour later, staff returned, and a nurse checked his vitals. He initially ignored the officers, then asked to be released. The sergeant told Brooks his release depended on his “ability to show self control,” according to the sergeant’s report.

Staff finally removed Brooks from the chair another 40 minutes later, around 2 a.m. Saturday. “He leaned forward and crawled into the cell, used the bunk to sit for a brief moment and stood and walked toward the toilet,” the supervisor’s report states.

That morning, he called his wife, Mary, and explained what happened. She contacted the pastor who oversaw her husband’s community service, and he submitted Brooks’ paperwork on Monday.

When her husband came home, Mary Brooks took photos that show scabs on his wrists. Brooks drew an illustration of his experience at the jail, depicting the chair. It’s the only artwork he made for over a year-and-a-half. In June, he finally made a new drawing.

A drawing made by Vernon L. Brooks Jr. is pictured on April 25, 2024. (Credit: Sebastián Hidalgo, for The Illinois Answers Project).

“I don’t want to lose my gift because of what they did to me. It’s like they took something away from me,” he said.

After the incident, Brooks and reporters with Shaw Media and Illinois Answers filed public records requests with the McHenry County Sheriff’s Office for video of the restraint. The office denied the requests, saying “releasing any video footage jeopardizes the security of all McHenry County Sheriff’s Building and operations.”

The McHenry Police Department denied a public records request for video of Brooks’ arrest, saying it automatically purges all audio and video after 90 days.

Asked about the incident, the McHenry County Sheriff’s Office directed Illinois Answers to its policy, which allows staff to use the chair “to control inmates who display behaviors which may result in extensive damage of property or who are in danger of causing physical harm to themselves or others.”

Emily Matusek-Baker, a spokesperson for the department, said the sheriff’s office was unaware of any allegations made by Brooks. She said the office has orders and training in compliance with the ACA, NCCHC, and IDOC and holds its employees accountable to meet standards.

Brooks has since visited a neurologist at a V.A. hospital, where electrodiagnostic testing found evidence of nerve damage near his wrists but did not establish the cause. According to a doctor’s report from a February visit, Brooks was still feeling significant numbness in his right hand.

Vernon L. Brooks Jr.’s wrist brace is pictured on April 25, 2024. (Credit: Sebastián Hidalgo, for The Illinois Answers Project).

Vernon and Mary Brooks sit on the couch at their home in McHenry, Illinois, on April 25, 2024. (Credit: Sebastián Hidalgo, for The Illinois Answers Project).

Mary Brooks said her husband has been “traumatized” by the incident and isn’t the same.

Brooks said he has been arrested before but never treated in this way. He previously faced other charges, including for soliciting and begging, drug possession and trespassing.

He filed a complaint last summer with the Illinois Attorney General’s Office alleging discrimination and excessive force, and the office’s Civil Rights Bureau closed the case two weeks later, saying it has statutory authority to investigate possible patterns and practices of unconstitutional or unlawful conduct in county correctional facilities, but not individual incidents.

At least 11 people have filed federal civil rights complaints related to the use of restraint chairs in Illinois since 2013. Two settled. Three are ongoing. Three were dismissed. Three were found in favor of the sheriff’s department and jail staff. Nearly all detainees have represented themselves.

Some have sought recourse through other avenues, including two volunteer-run advocacy groups. Others said they didn’t know who to turn to, believed too much time had passed, or didn’t want to pursue it.

Brooks, a former minister and the son of a Chicago police officer, said he’s been trying to forgive the jail staff for what happened. But he can’t let it go. He said he wants to expose the use of restraint chairs and sue the jail – if he can find a lawyer to take his case.

“I don’t want nobody else to go through this,” he said.

The Illinois Answers Project is interested in hearing from people who have been restrained in chairs. Reach out to reporter Grace Hauck at [email protected]. Interested in localizing this story? Contact Mumina Mohamud at [email protected].

Contributing: Amanda Marrazzo, Shaw Media; Meredith Newman, Cam Rodriguez, Casey Toner and Laura Stewart, Illinois Answers Project. Database fact checking by Audrey Azzo, Doris Alvarez and John Volk.

Note on the methodology: There’s no clear definition of what constitutes a separate versus ongoing restraint chair “incident” in Illinois, where people are typically restrained in repeated two-hour blocks. For the purposes of this data collection and analysis, Illinois Answers considered an incident to be ongoing if someone was held continuously in a chair, or if they were only given brief and periodic breaks over a long period of restraint. In these cases, county jails often identified the case with a unique incident number, kept an ongoing observation log, and submitted a single, all-encompassing report to the state. Illinois Answers considered an incident as separate if someone was released from a chair for a prolonged period of time before being restrained again. In these cases, county jails often designated separate incident numbers, logs, and reports.

This story was made possible by a grant from The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation to the Illinois Answers Project.

This article first appeared on Illinois Answers Project and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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